Theology and Idolatry

Let me present a sketch–though only a sketch and a very broad one at that–of how one might think about theology, both about a problem with it and one of the possible responses to that problem. The primary lines of my sketch will be two: (1) some kinds of theology may encourage idolatry; (2) there are theologies that are more likely to avoid idolatry.

1. Some kinds of theology may encourage idolatry.

To understand the Divine in terms of concepts and their relations to each other–in other words, in terms of knowledge in the quasi-mathematical terms in which knowledge has been construed since the Enlightenment–is to understand the Divine through a human construct. If I worship the construct, that which I know and understand, then I worship an idol.

This is a possibility rather than a necessity: rational theology does not necessarily devolve into idolatry, but it can, and it can do so unbeknownst to the particular worshiper. Idolatry is a danger of theology, not an inevitability. However, certain theologies may be more susceptible to that possibility. I think that systematic theology is an example. When rational knowledge becomes the highest intellectual value, it becomes more difficult to distinguish between what I know and the thing itself. The tendency is either to take the thing itself to be completely unknowable and unreachable (as in some cogent readings of Kant), or to assume that what I know and the thing are the same. In the first case, the only thing I can worship is what I know. I cannot know God, so I can worship only the image of him that I have created. In the second case, I cannot distinguish between the idol I have created and God. In either case, I would worship an idol.

2. Some theologies are less susceptible to idolatry.

Systematic theology takes the word “theology” to mean “the science of God” or “the knowledge of God,” but we can instead understand it to mean “the word of God,” “God’s logos.” We can also we understand the word “knowledge” in the biblical sense, as the experience of intimacy. In either case, neither of which excludes the other, theology becomes something different.

How does one go about doing theology that keeps its eye on the word of God as its origin and on intimate relation as its goal? There are probably numerous ways. I don’t discount the possibility that some who do systematic theology are able to do so. But for me the answer has been something I would call “scriptural theology,” reflecting on the scriptures for the insights that they continue to reveal about human being and our relation to God.

I think that some traditional theological problems are unlikely to arise in scriptural theology. For example, I don’t think that the problem of theodicy does. Neither, I suspect, does the problem of the unity of the Godhead. Formulating those problems requires a meta-step beyond scripture and the desire for intimacy with the Divine. Instead, the questions of scriptural theology are those that the scriptures themselves raise, almost always questions of me rather than my questions about God. On this view, when I bring all the resources I can command to the scriptures, read them to hear what they ask of me, and ponder my answers to their questions, I am doing theology.

25 comments for “Theology and Idolatry

  1. November 8, 2005 at 3:50 pm


    I like your direction with this. However I wonder about your definition of the word of God. You are pinning a lot on the scriptures, but what room does that leave for the direct word of God to us, aka personal revelation? I think the scriptures are a good launching pad for what I call the direct word of God, but it is only that personal revelation that allows us to know God rather than know about him. I just fear that calling it scriptural theology leave too little room for personal revelation. May I suggest revelatory theology instead? That leaves rooms for our own revelations, plus the canonized revelations of others.

  2. Jim F
    November 8, 2005 at 4:25 pm

    Geoff, obviously I don’t deny the impossibility or the importance of revelation, but would I do a theology of it? I’m not sure. I can see myself reflecting and writing about the words of the prophets and of the scriptures, but I can’t see doing that with personal revelation.

  3. November 8, 2005 at 4:41 pm

    I think that some traditional theological problems are unlikely to arise in scriptural theology. For example, I don’t think that the problem of theodicy does.

    I’m not sure quite how to express this, but it seems like scriptural theology as you’ve described it requires an artificial boundary demarcation or a stacking of the deck—some kind of voluntary suspension of the totality of our experience and knowledge, and the urge to integrate it all. How do you turn off your mind?

  4. November 8, 2005 at 4:44 pm

    but would I do a theology of it?

    When you say do a theology, what do you mean? Do you mean form a personal theology to make sense of the Universe for yourself or create and articulate a theology and present it to the public? It seems that personal revelation would be great for the former, but that the latter would be problematic in this church regardless of the methods (due to staewardship issues mostly).

  5. Ben Huff
    November 8, 2005 at 6:36 pm

    Jim, you are right that theology brings the danger of idolatry, or at least brings the danger of certain forms of it–it also lessens the likelihood of other forms, I think. And historically, systematic theology has been associated with a certain kind of hyper-intellectualized idolatry in your sense. Of course, to worship what one thinks about God over God himself is perfectly easy without doing systematic theology.

    Could it be that the hyper-intellectualized form of idolatry you are worried about, Jim, is a result of other factors primarily, with systematic theology merely influencing the particular form it takes? The Pharisees worshipped a god and followed a law of their own making, without any systematic theology that I know of. I take it to be a fundamental danger of religion that one may start holding to it for the sake of being right–to feed one’s pride, rather than admitting the limits of one’s knowledge (and listening to God to remedy one’s ignorance). I suggest that this tendency appears in any kind of theology, including “un”-theology, about as much as any other.

    One particular form of idolatry we also need to watch out for is the “A Bible! We have a Bible!” kind where one not only presumes not to need any further word from God but presumes to already completely understand what has been given in scripture. Of course, one way to shake loose from this mistake is to read the text more carefully. But another way to shake loose, to raise questions that open up room for faith, is to think systematically.

    : )
    Despite the ongoing differences, great post, Jim!

  6. November 8, 2005 at 10:30 pm

    Interestingly Bill Vallicella had an interesting post related to this last week that I linked to on my sidebar. It was a discussion of idolatry and Malebranche. Those with more of a philosophical bent may wish to check it out. It seems related to Jim’s comments.

  7. Soyde River
    November 9, 2005 at 3:10 am

    It all depends on what the meaning of “is” is.

  8. Jim F
    November 9, 2005 at 5:48 am

    Christian Y. Cardall: I don’t see why this requires any “suspension of the totality of experience and knowledge.” When I deal with my family I don’t have to suspend any experience and knowledge, but some questions don’t arise because they aren’t part of that domain of experience. Perhaps you can help me understand better why you are uncomfortable with what I’ve said.

    Geoff J: I take theology to be something that is done publicly: my expression of my understanding of my beliefs.

    Ben Huff: I’m a little confused by your remarks. I’ve not argued that systematic theology is necessarily idolatrous, as you recognize. But I’ve also not argued that it is the only way to be idolatrous so I don’t know what to make of your remark “Of course, to worship what one thinks about God over God himself is perfectly easy without doing systematic theology.”

    You are, of course, right that idolatry of the text is a possible mistake, though I think that the openness of the LDS canon makes that less likely. Can systematic theology raise questions that open up room for faith? Of course it can. But, as I briefly argued, it seems to me inherently to have more possible problems than some other kinds of theology. That’s something you apparently disagree with, so I’d be interested in why you disagree.

    Clark: Thanks for the link. I enjoyed reading it and following some of the links. Good stuff. Nevertheless, I think we have to be quite careful if we speak about God as the Absolute. If we mean that word in its philosophical sense, then I think we are no longer talking about the Being Latter-day Saints worship. I think that if we do systematic theology we are at least as likely to be helped to think about God by mining philosophical anthropology as we are by mining philosophical theology since I think that we understand God to be a person in the same sense as human persons.

    Soyde River: No, it doesn’t. Go troll some place else.

  9. Jim F
    November 9, 2005 at 6:45 am

    Christian Y. Cardall: I’ve been thinking a bit about your question. Perhaps an example will help. Systematic theologians often talk about the claim that God is omnipotent and they do so from a perspective that is largely given to them by philosophy and science, though it is not clear that either has much bearing on God’s power–any more than they have much bearing on what I might mean were I to say, “My wife is a powerful woman.”

    We can adduce scriptures to back up our philosophical claims about God’s power, such as Luke 1:37: “For with God nothing shall be impossible.” But I think a more honest (because more attentive to the relationship we actually have, as persons, with the person God) and a more productive way is to read that scripture for what it says. It does not make a philosophical/theological claim that God can do anything that it is logically possible to do. It is a manifestation of Divine faithfulness: “You can be assured that God will do this thing.”

    Put otherwise: the god of systematic theology (though not only that) is a metaphysical god, Pascal’s “God of the philosophers.” In contrast, the God we worship is a personal God who reveals himself in scripture (though not only in scripture). Theology ought to deal with the God we worship rather than the metaphysical god.

  10. November 9, 2005 at 9:33 am

    I’m not sure that there is any public way to articulate the personal God whom we experience that isn’t metaphysical. It seems to me that the manner in which we experience God defies adequate communication (without divine assistance). Attempts to adequately communication these personal experiences seem to inevitably lead to metaphysical discussion of the nature and manner of personal divine experience itself. Am I making sense and, if so, how do we get out of this?

  11. Jim F
    November 9, 2005 at 10:37 am

    John C: What you say makes sense, but I think that what I’m calling scriptural theology is more likely to help us avoid the problems than systematic theology is because it remains more closely tied to the experiences themselves than does the concepts of those experiences. Some ways of doing theology allow for a rigor of thought that doesn’t also demand the conceptual coherence that systematic theology requires, a coherence that removes the depth of that to which its concepts refer, hollowing out our experiences of the Divine by allowing only one aspect to appear.

    There is a sense in which metaphysics is unavoidable if we are to reflect on anything. So, for me, the question isn’t one of entirely avoiding metaphysics or going beyond it. The supposition of such a possibility is itself a metaphysical supposition. Rather, the point is to find ways of reflecting that are more likely to disrupt the metaphysics that reflection unavoidably creates.

  12. November 9, 2005 at 11:21 am

    Jim F., thanks for your further explanation. My response metastatized to an extent that I decided to make it a post.

  13. Jim F
    November 9, 2005 at 12:26 pm

    And my response to Christian seemed like it belongs at his site rather than here, so I put it there, but you can easily get to it by clicking on the link he provides in 12.

  14. November 9, 2005 at 12:54 pm

    Jim, I fully agree that we have to be careful about absolutist language. And Bill Vallicella is someone who was a Heidegger scholar who became quite disenchanted with him and now often brings up quotations of postmodern figures to snipe at them – often distorting the text in question. Still I think some of his arguments are interesting. Afterall if we take “absolute” in a more transformed sense than the way say Hegel took it, then both God and every person are absolute or transcendent.

  15. Jim F
    November 9, 2005 at 1:31 pm

    Clark, I think that is the key difference between Mormon theology and others (whether systematic or otherwise): we take it that all persons are absolute; I don’t think that anyone else in philosophy or theology does. So when theologians talk about the Absolute, they aren’t talking about persons other than God. Nevertheless, I think we can learn from them by misreading them, just as we can learn from Levinas’s ethics by misreading him.

  16. November 9, 2005 at 2:20 pm

    Jim, I actually think that it is fairly ubiquitous in many forms of Jewish theology. Indeed I think Levinas was in many ways espousing rather common rabbinical ideas in his writings. The Jews never had the limitations that the Christians did due to creation ex nihilo. I think this significantly affected how neoPlatonism was used and considered in their faith. You do find the term “the absolute” used by Rabbis, especially famous ones like Rabbi Azriel of Gerona for instance. The absolute for these Rabbis was the En Sof and corresponds pretty well to similar concepts in Derrida, Levinas and even Heidegger.

  17. Jim F
    November 9, 2005 at 3:53 pm

    Clark, There’s no question that Levinas has been heavily influenced by his own studies of the rabbis. However, except the Hegelian notion or the traditional Christian notion, I don’t know what “the Absolute” refers to in Derrida, Levinas, and Heidegger. Levinas uses the adjective “absolute” frequently to describe the other. Is that what you are talking about? Can you expand more on what you have in mind when you refer to these rabbinical ideas of the absolute?

  18. Ben Huff
    November 9, 2005 at 3:59 pm

    : )
    Okay, Jim, let me try again.

    You said:
    To understand the Divine in terms of concepts and their relations to each other–in other words, in terms of knowledge in the quasi-mathematical terms in which knowledge has been construed since the Enlightenment–is to understand the Divine through a human construct. If I worship the construct, that which I know and understand, then I worship an idol.

    The reason you offer for why systematic theology is especially likely to lead to idolatry is that the concepts it works with are human constructs.

    But the scriptures are constructed of human words. I don’t see that these words are any less human constructs than the concepts of systematic theology. Also, words are naturally understood as invoking concepts, though not necessarily the same concepts as those used in systematic theology. I’m not sure what to make of the difference between a word and a concept as such (except by recognizing cases of equivocation), or how to understand words without using concepts (e.g. a concept of faith invoked by “faith”).

    Could it be that your worry is that certain kinds of concepts are more likely to misrepresent God than others? For example, concepts that are defined by tidy definitions, as contrasted with concepts whose content is filled in by an accumulation and digestion of experience?

  19. November 9, 2005 at 4:18 pm

    Sorry, by absolute I meant the way the term was used in Judaism not Derrida and company. Rather I meant that the meaning of the term in Judaism corresponds to meanings one can find under other names in Derrida and company. (I’d have to double check Levinas as I seem to recall him using the term, but it’s been a long time since I read him last and I may be misrecalling)

  20. November 9, 2005 at 4:22 pm

    Ben Huff: Thanks very much! This is very helpful. We are using the word “concepts” differently. I don’t take all words to refer to or be associated with concepts. Rather, I think words generally just mean by meaning in context through usage, and that usage isn’t conceptual (except, perhaps, when subjected to a meta-analysis).

    However, I also think that in philosophy and in philosophical theology we create concepts of various kinds that then have an existence of their own. Ordinary words aren’t human constructs in the same way that philosophical terms are.

  21. November 9, 2005 at 4:23 pm

    Clark, that makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the help.

  22. Ben Huff
    November 9, 2005 at 4:40 pm

    Okay, Jim, but I’m not sure what “concepts” means now to you, unless it’s just something like “wrongly over-philosophized thoughts”. But if that’s what it means, then your original post becomes uninformative. Surely that’s not what you mean; perhaps you can explain more what it is about the concepts used in systematic theology that differentiates them from the thoughts that go with more ordinary language usage in such a way as to make them more problematic to use regarding God.

    Why are concepts (in your sense), as human constructs, more unreliable than words (and the thoughts that go with them)?

    Meantime, let me try something: Philosophers have a tendency to make up meanings for words that have little to do with lived experience. The words used in the scriptures (bread, fish, father) are firmly embedded in human lived experience. Words firmly embedded in lived experience are more likely to be putting us in touch with something real, as opposed to figments of our imaginations. Philosophers’ words by contrast often merely refer to fictions. If we are trying to be faithful to our experiences of God, then we should stick with words like bread, fish, and father, more than words like omnipotent, or metaphysical substance.

    If your thinking is something like that, well, I’m sympathetic. But I don’t see that this has any more than a historically coincidental connection with systematic theology. Just because it hasn’t been done yet, who says one can’t think systematically, in a way that is solidly connected with lived experience? I think our sample size for judging tendencies of systematic theology is too small to make very good generalizations. We have basically one tradition to go by, and there are a lot of other explanations for their mistakes than the fact that they were trying to think systematically.

  23. November 9, 2005 at 4:55 pm

    Jim, not to take things off in too philosophical direction again, but… (Apologies to all readers bored with philosophy)

    Are you getting at Heidegger’s notion of averageness or everydayness? That theological talk, by adopting a technical jargon, loses connection to that everydayness and thus in a sense Daesin in its authentic mode?

  24. November 9, 2005 at 7:52 pm

    Ben: I’m getting ready to leave town for several days–without internet access–so I don’t have time to say much and won’t for a few days, but your way of putting it works quite well for me.

    You say, “Just because it hasn’t been done yet, who says one can’t think systematically, in a way that is solidly connected with lived experience?” Two reasons: (1) in 1800 years, we’ve not seen one, and (2) what you see in the substance of Clarks remark, (23).

    Clark: I think that is a very nice way of putting it, though I’d not thought of it. Heidegger’s use of the everyday is not quite what I mean because it has implications–such as inauthenticity–that I would prefer to avoid. Nevertheless, the language of systematic philosophy, indeed of most philosophy, is technologicall (in a broad sense) and scripture is not.

  25. November 10, 2005 at 12:22 am

    Jim, since you are going away, you might be interested in this link. It’s mainly me rambling a bit about Levinas. However at the end I have some very good links on Levinas and Kabbalah and the Talmud. It pointed out a book I’m definitely putting on my to get list for someday. Ajzenstat, Oona. Driven Back to the Sources: The Premodern Sources of Levinas’s Postmodernism, “The Kabbalah and Deconstruction.â€? Duquesne University Press 2001.

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